Friday, October 28, 2011

While We Wait ... A Q&A With Julie Kagawa

So, am I the only person left in the book blogosphere who hasn't read Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series? Yep, that's what I thought. I've been meaning to, of course, just haven't gotten around to it. But, now, thanks to Kagawa's publicist, I have a shiny new copy of The Iron Knight, the newest book in the series. Since - as you well know - my OCD does not allow me to start series in the middle, I put the first two books on reserve at the library. As soon as they come in, I'm going to dive right into this much-talked about series. I can't wait. Well, I have to wait, but in the mean time, let's enjoy this little Q&A with Julie Kagawa:

Q.) If you could pick one of the characters from The Iron Fey series to have dinner with, who would it be and why?

A.) I’m going to have to go with Ash, because I know he’d at least be polite. Unlike a certain faery prankster, who might put something in my food or turn the waiter into a hedgehog. Meghan would also be a good choice, we could catch a movie afterwards. Grim…not so much; he’d order the most expensive thing on the menu and then turn up his nose at it.

Q.) When you first started this series, with The Iron King, did you know then that there would be multiple books? And did you know you’d want to write them with a changing point of view?

A.) When I first began The Iron King, I knew I wanted to write at least a trilogy, but I left an open ending on the first book in case the publisher didn’t want to buy the whole series. Fortunately, they did, though I did intend the series just to be a trilogy. I didn’t think I would write a fourth book from Ash’s POV, but it made the most sense to continue the series with him.

Q.) Being that The Iron Knight is written from Ash’s point of view, was it easier or harder to switch over and tell his story?

A.) It was a little harder, initially. I knew Meghan; after three books I knew her voice and her personality and her quirks. It was difficult with Ash, because he was such a guarded character, and he never was really chatty. And because he’s lived such a long time, and is an Unseelie fey, he’s done some things in his life that might change how some people view him. It was actually kind of scary putting his story out there; what will people think now that they know the real Ash? But I wrote his story as honestly as I could, and I hope they will come to love the Winter Prince as much as I do.

Did that whet your appetite a little bit? Good. The Iron Knight can be picked up at your local bookstore (assuming, of course, that your community still has one) or your favorite online book retailer: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Harlequin Teen, etc.

If you've read the series, what do you think? Are you excited for the newest book?

(Images shamelessly stolen from Julie Kagawa's website)

Zany Adventure Story A Whole Lot of Fun

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Griffin Bing, known far and wide as "The Man With the Plan" is beginning to doubt his newest venture. It was supposed to be a big thing - a crowd of 6th graders staying overnight in a spooky abandoned house to prove to the adults of Cedarville, New York, that kids can and, more importantly, should have a voice in local politics. Now? It's turned into a joke, a pathetic night of 11-year-old Griffin and his best friend, Ben Slovak, trading ghost stories in a crumbling haunted house. Not exactly the revolution Griffin was hoping for.

Things take a turn for the much, much, much better when Griffin discovers an old baseball card hidden in a desk. Griffin's not sure how valuable the card might be, but he's certain it's worth something. And even a little bit would go a long way toward keeping the Bings in the house they can no longer afford. When Griffin takes the card to a local pawn shop, he's thrilled to get $120 for it. Until he discovers he's been swindled - the 1920 Babe Ruth card is rare and worth at least $200,000.

It's not so much the money that bugs Griffin, but the injustice. Once again an adult in Cedarville is walking all over a kid. It's not right. And The Man With the Plan is not about to let it go this time. With the help of a crack team of 6th graders, he's going to get his card back. No matter what it takes.

Swindle, the first book in Gordon Korman's popular series about uber-planner Griffin Bing, is a whole lot of fun. It's not the best-written piece of middle-grade literature I've ever read, but it's an upbeat, exciting story that will speak to any kid who's ever felt invisible. This zany adventure makes for a quick, funny read, one that should engage even reluctant readers. I didn't like the book nearly as much as my kids did, but I definitely enjoyed Swindle. If my kids have anything to do with it - and believe me, they do - I'll be picking up the rest of the books in the series. Soon. And that's okay with me.

(Readalikes: Um, I can't think of anything. Can you?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cajun Ghost Story A Warm, Enchanting Read

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

It's bad enough that Shelby's dad took a job in another country, but with her grandma in the hospital, Shelby's now forced to live with her mother. Which maybe wouldn't be so bad if: (1) Mirage Allemond hadn't left Shelby and her dad a year ago, (2) She didn't live out in the middle of a gator-infested bayou, and (3) She wasn't a swamp witch. As soon as 11-year-old Shelby arrives in tiny Bayou Bridge, Louisiana, she wants out, a feeling that grows stronger with each passing hour. Allemond's little bayou house creeps Shelby out and the huge blue bottle tree in the backyard seems almost alive. To make matters worse, Shelby feels like she's living with a stranger - a very strange stranger. The kids at school make fun of Shelby, laugh at her mother, and try to trick Shelby into playing a very dangerous game.

Miserable with this new twist in her life, Shelby's ecstatic when she finally makes a friend. True, Gwen's a little odd. She hangs around the town cemetery, doesn't go to school, and says her family left her behind when they moved to New Orleans. Shelby can't make any sense of the girl, but she still likes being with her. Then, things start to get weird. Shelby spies a girl she thinks is Gwen stalking around the bayou at night, she finds a series of mysterious messages left in her mother's blue bottle tree and she realizes that Gwen knows things, things that could explain the profound sadness Allemond carries with her. In spite of herself, Shelby gets caught up in the eerie magic of the bayou, where the secrets of her mother's past still haunt the swampy waterways. As Shelby struggles to understand, she learns some powerful lessons about faith, family and, ultimately, forgiveness.

With colorful bayou settings, rich in wonder and magic, Kimberley Griffiths Little brings her poignant family stories to vivid life. Her debut, The Healing Spell, touched my heart, but her newest engaged both my ticker and my imagination and, really, there's nothing I like better in a book. Just in time for Halloween, Circle of Secrets is a Cajun ghost story that's spooky enough to send delicous little shivers down the spine, but not scary enough to cause nightmares. In fact, it's the perfect blend of natural terrors (gators, bullies, abandonment) and supernatural frights (ghosts, bumps in the night, etc.), which combine to make this a shivery, atmospheric read. Mostly, though, it's a warm, enchanting story about a young girl coming to terms with her imperfect family and, of course, herself. In case you can't tell, I loved it.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of The Healing Spell by Kimberley Griffiths Little and Ruined by Paula Morris)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some intense scenes

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Circle of Secrets from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Bookish Treats (No Tricks, It's a Giveaway!) for Halloween

My good friends over at Gallery Books have asked me to host a giveaway for a trilogy of high fantasy books by Canadian author Chris Evans. I haven't had a chance to read these yet, but I think the story looks exciting. The giveaway is for all three books - paperbacks of the first two - A Darkness Forged in Fire and The Light of Burning Shadows - and a hardcover of the third, Ashes of a Black Forest, which just barely came out. Nice, huh? The contest be a quick one - it will run until midnight (MST) on Halloween and is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada only. To enter, just leave a comment on this post. As always, if you blog, Tweet, Facebook, etc. about the giveaway, I'll give you one extra entry per method of spreading the news. Good luck!

More info on the books:

Book 1 of the Iron Elves: A Darkness Forged in Fire (Pocket Books; May 26, 2009; $9.99)

“Slyly humorous details…”—Publishers Weekly

“Evans’s first novel heralds the launch of an outstanding military fantasy series…Strong storytelling, a compelling cast of heroes and villains, and a keen knowledge of military tactics of the Napoleonic era make this a priority purchase for most libraries and a splendid read for fans of both sf and fantasy military adventure. Highly recommended.”—Library Journal, starred review

“A masterful debut—if J.R.R. Tolkien and Bernard Cornwell had a literary love child, this would be it.”—Karen Traviss, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“An earthy, sardonic antihero…flanked by a large, colorful cast.”—Booklist

“Chris Evans new series could be labeled muskets and magic…I’m waiting eagerly for the next installment of this exciting adventure.”—UCReview.com, Henry Lazarus

A DARKNESS FORGED IN FIRE introduces an unforgiving world of musket and cannon…bow and arrow…magic, diplomacy, and oaths—each wielding terrible power in an Empire teetering on the brink of war.

In this world, Konowa Swift Dragon, former commander of the Empire’s elite Iron Elves, is looked upon as anything but ordinary. He’s murdered a Viceroy, been court-martialed, seen his beloved regiment disbanded, and finally been banished in disgrace to the one place he despises the most—the forest.

Now, all he wants is to be left alone with his misery…but for Konowa, nothing is ever that simple. The mysterious and alluring Visyna Tekoy, the highborn daughter of an elfkynan governor, seeks him out in the dangerous wild with a royal decree that he resume his commission as an officer in Her Majesty’s Imperial Army, effective immediately.

For in the east, a falling Red Star heralds the return of a magic long vanished from the earth. Rebellion grows within the Empire as a frantic race to reach the Star unfolds. It is a chance for Konowa to redeem himself—even if the entire affair appears doomed to be a suicide mission…and the soldiers recruited for the task are not at all what he expects. And worse, his key adversary in the perilous race for the Star is the dreaded Shadow Monarch—a legendary elf-witch whose machinations for absolute domination spread deeper than Konowa could ever imagine. A DARKNESS FORGED IN FIRE will keep many lights on late into the night this summer as readers find themselves hooked to the last page.

Book 2 of the Iron Elves: The Light of Burning Shadows (Pocket Books; October 26, 2010; $9.99)

“Evans evokes the era of Napoleon with muskets and slashing swords while neatly mixing in military fantasy, swords and sorcery, and a great deal of success; readers will no doubt end up desperate for the next volume.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A gutsy fantasy set in a world of imperial greed and magical plotting, with an eye for the ordinary soldier’s plight that would have done Kipling proud.”—Karen Traviss, #1 New York Times bestselling author

Musket and cannon, bow and arrow, and magic and diplomacy vie for supremacy once again in the second epic fantasy adventure from acclaimed author Chris Evans. As the human-dominated Calahrian Empire struggles to maintain its hold on power in the face of armed rebellion from within, the Iron Elves’ perilous quest to defeat the power-hungry witch, the Shadow Monarch, takes on greater urgency.

The Iron Elves, shunned by their own people for bearing the mark of the Shadow Monarch, and desperately wanting to forever erase this shame, became legendary for their prowess on the battlefield as the Calahrian Imperial Army’s elite shock troops. But when their commanding officer, Konowa Swift Dragon, murdered the Viceroy of Elfkyna, he was exiled, and these brave elves were banished to a remote desert outpost, doomed and leaderless, their honor in tatters.

Recalled to duty to reform his regiment from the dregs of the Imperial Army, Konowa thwarted the plans of the Shadow Monarch at the Battle of Luuguth Jor—ensuring that the fabled Red Star, a source of great natural energy, did not fall into Her hands. Now Konowa must cross storm-tossed seas to seek out the lost elves and the prophesied return of another Star somewhere in a desert wasteland roiling with mysterious power, infernos of swirling magic, and legends brought back to life in new and terrible ways. And the fate of every living creature will come to depend on a small band of ragged and desperate soldiers, whose very loyalty to the Empire they have sworn to serve is no longer certain. When death is but a temporary condition, a terrifying question arises: who is the true ally—and fearsome enemy—in a growing conflict that threatens all? THE LIGHT OF BURNING SHADOWS will keep a strong hold of readers as they seek to find resolution in this thrilling epic.

Book 3 of the Iron Elves: Ashes of a Black Frost (Gallery Books; October 18, 2011; $25.99)

“Evans ably continues the saga of the determined and driven Iron Elves and their valiant leader, Maj. Konowa Swift Dragon, in this gritty follow-up to 2009’s The Light of Burning Shadows…heroic action keeps Evans’s fans coming back.”—Publishers Weekly

“A fast-paced, action-filled, fitting end to an epic tale between forces of good, evil and those with a bit of both, filled with characters from fairy tales to nightmares who all play their roles beautifully, especially the enigmatic Konowa Swift Dragon. You’ll want to read this trilogy…”—Romantic Times, ****Four Star Review

The acclaimed epic fantasy series Iron Elves by Chris Evans captured readers with A Darkness Forged in Fire and The Light of Burning Shadows, and now has followers eagerly anticipating the third and final in the Iron Elves series, ASHES OF A BLACK FROST (Gallery Books; October 18, 2011; $25.99).

Amidst a scene of carnage on a desert battlefield blanketed in metallic snow, Major Konowa Swift Dragon sees his future, and it is one drenched in shadow and blood. Never mind that he has won a grand victory for the Calahrian Empire. He came here in search of his lost regiment of elves, while the Imperial Prince came looking for the treasures of a mystical library, and both ventures have failed. But Konowa knows, as do the Iron Elves—both living and dead—that another, far more important battle now looms before them. The campaign in the desert was only the latest obstacle on the twisted, darkening path leading inexorably to the Hyntaland, and the final confrontation with the dreaded Shadow Monarch.

In this third novel of musket and magic in Chris Evans’s Iron Elves saga, Konowa’s ultimate journey is fraught with escalating danger. A vast, black forest finds a new source of dark power, spawning creatures even more monstrous than the blood trees from which they evolve. The maniacally unstable former emissary of the Shadow Monarch hungers for revenge, leading an army of ravenous beasts bent on utterly destroying the Iron Elves. A reluctant hero, Private Alwyn Renwar, struggles to maintain his connection to this world and that of the loyalty of the shades of the dead. And in a maze of underground tunnels, Visyna Tekoy, whom Konowa counts among those he has loved and lost, fights for her life against the very elves he so desperately wants to find.

And so Konowa sets off from this Canyon of Bones, pursuing his freedom from a curse that has cast his life in darkness. For though his long, violent trek may indeed lead him to his destiny, he is ill prepared for the discovery he will make…with the fate of the Iron Elves, and the world, hinging on the courage of one wrathful elf. ASHES OF A BLACK FROST will engage Iron Elves enthusiasts from beginning to end, as well as entice new readers as part of a series that is “a grand new entry in the field of fantasy masters” (Richard A. Knaak, New York Times bestselling author)—a Fall 2011 adventure not to be missed.

(Book images are from Indiebound.com)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Don't Believe in Fairy Tales? You Might After Reading This.

(Image from Deseret Book)

I've heard people describe President Dieter F. Uchtdorf (of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) as elegant, poised, and witty. Also, hot. I'm not going anywhere near that last one - I don't want to risk my eternal salvation by commenting on an apostle's looks, good or otherwise - but I most definitely agree with the first three adjectives. Yet, what's always struck me most about the Czechoslavkian/German General Authority is the kindness and love that just radiate from his being. I feel it every time I see his face or hear him speak. Reading his newest book, Your Happily Ever After, evoked that same sense of warmth and affection. Every word of his message, which is directed at young women, is imbued with the love he obviously feels for them.

Using examples from popular fairy tales, President Uchtdorf reminds us that no one reaches "happily ever after" without experiencing some struggles. Just like Cinderella endured abuse from her stepmother/sisters, just like Belle faced a ferocious beast, just like the miller's daughter fought the cruel Rumpelstiltskin, we will all encounter challenges on our paths to eternal bliss. But, promises President Uchtdorf, problems can be overcome and happiness attained if we follow God's plan for us. By remaining true to what we know is right, we'll gain the most happily of ever afters.

This small, beautifully-illustrated volume will be treasured for its simple, but hopeful message. Although it's meant for young LDS women, its truths apply to everyone. The book's short enough to be read often and would make a lovely gift, especially for a girl who's entering Young Women's or one who just needs a little pick-me-up. Even if you don't believe in fairy tales, Your Happily Ever After will give you an uplifting new perspective, one that employs the kind, thoughtful outlook so many associate with the elegant, poised, witty - and possibly even hot - President Uchtdorf.

(Readalikes: Apparently I don't read enough inspirational non-fiction. Help me out here!)

Grade: B
If this were a movie, it would be rated: G

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Your Happily Ever After from the generous folks at Deseret Book. Thank you!

Monday, October 24, 2011

I Can't Say It Enough: Read This Series!

(Image from Indiebound)

(Note: Although this review will not contain spoilers for Under the Jolly Roger, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Bloody Jack novels. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Tough crowds don't scare "Bloody" Jack Faber. Much. She's always managed to handle even the most unsavory of assemblages, be they found drinking in a grimy Boston pub, working aboard a creaky naval ship or sipping tea at a snooty finishing school. Somehow, she's won them all over to her side. But now, with her feet back on English soil, Jacky will face the audience she fears most: Mrs. Fletcher, mother of one James Emerson Fletcher. Jaimy. From whom Jacky's heard not a word.

Her meeting with the dragon lady confirms Jacky's worst fears - Jaimy's no longer hers. Jacky's barely had time to digest the devastating news when she's nabbed by a press gang, who mistake her for a boy. Before she has time to explain, she's being hauled aboard a dingy Brig-of-War named Wolverine. The hell ship is captained by Abraham Scroggs, a sadist who's delighted to have a female on board, especially one as famous as Jacky. As soon as his gout clears up, he means to have her in his bed, whether she be willing or not.

Just as Jacky's about to meet her doom, a surprising turn of events changes everything for her. Suddenly, she's an outlaw, the most feared pirate on the high seas. With a price on her head, she can't very well go sashaying into port, which makes it rather difficult to claim the only treasure she really wants: Jaimy.

I don't say this about many series', but this one just keeps getting better. I've loved Jacky since I "met" her and I love her more with every passing page. She's one of the most finely-drawn characters I've ever encountered. With each new adventure, she gets funnier, braver, more admirable and more sympathetic. Have I told you lately that I love her? I do. And the funniest thing about these books, Under the Jolly Roger included, is that none of them really has much of a plot - they're simply about Jacky leaping from one adventure to another to another - and it doesn't bother me in the least. Jacky's character outshines everything else. L.A. Meyer's storytelling ain't bad either. I can't say it enough: Read this series!

(Readalikes: Bloody Jack; Curse of the Blue Tattoo; and other books in the Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer)

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for violence and sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Alien Abduction Story Leaves Me Feeling Flummoxed ... and Not Much Else

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Alien[eyl yuh n, ey leeuh n] adjective: unlike one's own; strange; not belonging to one: alien speech. (from www.dictionary.com)

It's appropriate that First Day on Earth, Cecil Castellucci's new (available November 1) YA novel, concerns aliens because I think the above description fits the book to a T. It's weird. It's strange. It's just ... alien. I'm not sure how to describe it, let alone react to it, but I'll try ...

The story revolves around Mal, a 16-year-old high school student nursing some serious angst. With his dad long gone and his mom mourning her abandonment with as much alcohol as she can find, Mal's usually left to his own devices. Since everyone thinks he's weird, Mal doesn't have any friends. Lonely, bitter, and confused about his place in the world, he seeks solace with a community support group. For survivors. Of alien abductions. Among the members of the group, Mal actually sort of fits in. The thing is, though, that none of the abductions other people describe during meetings resemble the experience Mal had with aliens. Or thinks he had. How else can he explain those hazy days when he disappeared back when he was 12? If the group can't help him make sense of what happened, who can? And if it wasn't aliens, what did happen to Mal? Most importantly, if the people in the group are crazy - and he strongly suspects they may be - then what does that say about Mal?

When Mal strikes up an unlikely friendship with Hooper, a mentally-challenged homeless man who's waiting for the Mother Ship to beam him up, Mal thinks he may finally have found his savior. The only problem: Mal has to somehow convince Hooper's aliens to take him with them when they come. And if they don't show up? Then, Mal will know for sure what he's always suspected - he's officially insane.

See what I mean? Strange premise (although I like the whole I'm-a-teen-who-feels-like-a-stranger-in-my-own-body-maybe-I-was-abducted-by-aliens idea), strange plot, strange execution. The whole story weirded me out so much that I couldn't connect with it at all. It's not exactly cheery either - the hopeful ending seems tacked on, not convincing. So, although I liked the book enough to finish it, overall, First Day on Earth was a really odd read for me. It left me feeling flummoxed and not much else.

(Readalikes: Um, I really can't think of anything. Can you?)

Grade: C-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for strong language (1 F-bomb, plus milder invectives), lewd humor and mature themes

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of First Day on Earth from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

Friday, October 21, 2011

In A Word: Delectable

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Why would Polly Portman, the most generous woman in Ipswitch, Pennsylvania, leave a recipe worth millions to her cat? That's the question on everyone's mind when the beloved baker's shocking bequest becomes public knowledge. No one's more disturbed by the news than Polly's sister, Ruth Anderson, who had big plans for the money she'd make auctioning Polly's secret recipe off to the highest bidder. Ruth's daughter, 11-year-old Alice, couldn't care less about being a millionaire - she just wants her aunt back. Like everyone else in the small town (excluding bitter, jealous Ruth), Alice adored Polly, who showered her with the kind of affection she never got at home. Now, all she's got left of her aunt is Lardo, Polly's fat, cantankerous cat.

As the annual Blueberry Award baking competition creeps closer, Ipswitch buzzes with excitement. With Polly Portman, winner of 13 consecutive Blueberrys, out of the way, someone else has a chance to be crowned Pie Queen. Everyone's baking like mad, but one person wants a leg up on the competition, the kind of advantage than can only be had by finding and stealing Polly's secret recipe. When a series of strange events shows Alice just how far that someone's willing to go, she knows it's up to her to catch the would-be thief. With her friend Charlie by her side, Alice puts her detecting skills to the test. And winds up making some big discoveries - about family, about friendship and about herself.

As warm and sweet as its title suggests, PIE by Sarah Weeks is a light, funny mystery that will appeal to readers of all ages. Whether you're after heart, humor, or just some mouth-watering pie recipes, you'll find it and more between the covers of this uplifting middle grade novel. It's a fun little mystery with a solution I should have seen coming, but didn't - a situation that always delights me. An all-around treat, PIE is, in a word, delectable.

(Readalikes: Hm, I can't really think of anything. Can you?)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: G

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of PIE from the generous folks at Scholastic. Thank you!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What Could Be Better Than Delicious Fall Recipes From an Improving Culinary Mystery Series? How 'bout an iPad2?

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Pumpkin Roll, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier novels in the Sadie Hoffmiller series. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Life in her small Colorado town has gotten a little uncomfortable for amateur sleuth, Sadie Hoffmiller. Her involvement in five different murder cases over the last year has earned her a reputation as a "murder magnet." She's proud of her detective skills, has even opened Hoffmiller Investigations to make it all legal, but still, she can't help but notice the suspicious looks she's been getting from longtime friends and neighbors.

Getting out of town seems like a good idea, especially when handsome Pete Cunningham needs her help to watch his three young grandsons while their parents house hunt in Texas. Being in the Boston area during Halloween time is lovely, albeit a little spooky. Maybe it's the nearness of Salem that's giving her the creeps or maybe it's the boys' colorful neighbors or maybe it's something more ... sinister. Sadie does not believe in ghosts, but when strange things start happening at the family's house in suburban Jamaica Plain, there are few logical ways to explain them. With lightbulbs exploding, doors slamming shut, lights flickering on and off, and obvious signs that someone's sneaking into the house while Pete and Sadie aren't home, all of them are on edge. Ghosts or not, Sadie's determined to solve the mystery. But the more she involves herself in the strange goings-on in the neighborhood, the more dangerous it's becoming. When a woman ends up dead, Sadie knows the weird things that have been happening are no joke and that the killer's becoming increasingly violent. If she doesn't solve the mystery - and fast - she could be the next victim.

You may not have noticed, but I broke one of my cardinal reading rules with Pumpkin Roll by Josi S. Kilpack. Normally, I'm too anal to read books in a series out of order; due to time constraints, though, I had to finish this one (number 6), before reading numbers 3 - 5. So, I did. Shocking, I know. The books actually stand alone quite well, though, so I only ruined a few plot surprises for myself. Regardless, I found that I liked this new installment much better than I liked the first two books in the series. Why? Because it's a little different, a little more complex. I still don't love Sadie's character and I definitely think the books in this series could be trimmed down by at least 100 pages each, but Pumpkin Roll engaged me more than others in the series have. I'm not saying the book's not predictable - it is - or that the characters couldn't use some major development - they can - I'm just liking the improvements I'm seeing as this series goes on. Oh, and did I mention the Fall recipes included in this one? Um, yum. Even if the book isn't quite perfection, the recipes just may be.

P.S. I really should mention that you can find all the recipes included in Kilpack's books on her website. While you're over there, be sure to check out her giveaway for an iPad2. There are multiple ways to enter, including commenting on this review. Good luck!

(Readalikes: Lemon Tart, English Trifle, and other books in the Sadie Hoffmiller series by Josi S. Kilpack; also Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, Strawberry Shortcake Murder, Blueberry Muffin Murder, Lemon Meringue Pie Murder, and other books in the Hannah Swensen series by Joanne Fluke)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for some violence

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Pumpkin Roll from the generous folks at Pump Up Your Book Promotion (for whom this review was written) and Shadow Mountain (a division of Deseret Book).

Cooking the Books: Whoopie Pies

Whoopie Pies

(from Pumpkin Roll by Josi S. Kilpack)

1 box devil’s food cake mix*
1 (3.4-ounce) box instant chocolate pudding
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
3/4 cup water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all ingredients together with an electric mixer until smooth and thick—at least 2 minutes. Drop six large spoonfuls of batter onto silicone mat-lined, parchment-lined, or well-greased cookie sheets.

Use the back of a spoon if necessary to flatten slightly so that each pie is no more than three-fourths of an inch tall.

Bake for 11 minutes, or until cake springs back when lightly touched. Cool on pan 2 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Let cool completely before assembling pies.
Store leftovers in refrigerator. Freeze individually wrapped cakes in wax paper.

Makes 8 to 10 pies.

*Can substitute any other type of cake mix, but if so, change pudding flavor to vanilla or another, more suitable,flavor.

Filling Choices*

Buttercream

1 cup butter
4 cups powdered sugar
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons milk

Cream butter and powdered sugar together. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix until fluffy. Add flour and milk and mix until well blended. Use additional flour or milk to get the correct consistency—a thick but airy frosting. Layer fillingbetween two cakes, bottoms together.

Marshmallow


3/4 cup Crisco shortening (do not use butter Crisco)
3/4 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 (7- to 8-ounce) jar Marshmallow Fluff

Beat shortening and powdered sugar together until smooth. Add vanilla and Marshmallow Fluff. Mix until wellblended.

*Can add 1/2 teaspoon of a flavored extract to filling: mint, lemon, strawberry, orange, etc.

My thoughts on the recipe: I know this isn't a new or exotic kind of recipe. Lots of people make Whoopie Pies all the time, but I never had, so I decided to try it. And they were good. Very good. I used the cake recipe as written as well as the buttercream frosting (since the only jar I had of Marshmallow Fluff has, I think, judging from the 1/2 inch of yellow liquid lurking at the bottom of the jar, been around since last Christmas). Next time I make them, though, I'll ignore the instructions to drop "six large spoonfuls of batter" onto the cookie sheet - my cookies turned out way too large. I would recommend just making them a standard cookie size. Also, the frosting recipe makes TONS. Either halve the recipe, make double (or triple) the amount of cookies, or use the extra frosting for another baking project. Speaking of frosting, next time I make these near a holiday, I think I'll dye the frosting a different color - orange for Halloween, red for Christmas or Valentine's Day, green for St. Patrick's Day, etc.

Wordy Culinary Mystery Gets Long, Dull

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: Although this review will not contain spoilers for English Trifle, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from the previous book. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

After solving the murder of a young mother in her quiet Colorado neighborhood, 56-year-old Sadie Hoffmiller's ready for a little R&R. A trip abroad is just the ticket. The fact that Sadie gets to travel with her daughter, Breanna, and stay at a luxurious English manor owned by the family of a future earl is icing on the cake. Especially since the earl-to-be happens to be Breanna's boyfriend, Liam Martin.

When their indulgent week of sightseeing comes to an end, the women are ready to go home, but reluctant to leave Liam, who's staying in Devonshire to care for his dying father. Liam's despair, coupled with a strange tension amongst the staff of the manor, unnerves Sadie. Her instincts tell her something's not quite right at Southgate. The corpse she discovers behind a drapery confirms it. Shocked to come face-to-face with another murder victim, Sadie immediately calls the local police. But when the Police Authority inspector shows up, the body's gone. Although everyone thinks she's crackers, Sadie knows what she saw. A man was killed and she intends to find out why. And by whom. Since she's not being allowed to leave the city, she might as well solve a murder.

As Sadie pokes her nose into the intricate lives of the people at Southgate, she stumbles upon a complex web of secrecy and lies. Everyone seems to be hiding something - even Liam. The question is what? The more she discovers, the more troubling the situation becomes. If Sadie doesn't solve the mystery soon, she's afraid she might be the next victim.

English Trifle, the second book in a series of culinary mysteries by Josi S. Kilpack, didn't do a whole lot for me. The plot seemed stale and contrived, the characters cliche, and the finale predictable. With about 100 pages more than it needed to have, the story dragged, getting especially dull in the middle. I did appreciate the fact that Kilpack fleshed her heroine out a lot more in this installment than she did in Lemon Tart - I'm not sure if I like Sadie, the overbearing do-gooder, but she's definitely getting more interesting. Not interesting enough, though, to carry this novel. In the end, I found English Trifle bland and disappointing. Rather like English food - or so I hear.

(Readalikes: Lemon Tart and other novels in the Sadie Hoffmiller series by Josi S. Kilpack; also Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, Strawberry Shortcake Murder, Blueberry Muffin Murder, Lemon Meringue Pie Murder, and other novels in the Hannah Swenson series by Joanne Fluke)

Grade: C-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for a small amount of violence

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of English Trifle from the generous folks at Deseret Book. Thank you!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Standing Against the Wind A Get-Up-And-Cheer Kind of Novel

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Patrice Williams has smarts, just not the kind she needs to survive on the mean streets of inner-city Chicago. All the A's in the world won't be enough to make the 13-year-old fit in - they can't make her poofy hair settle down, they can't erase her Southern accent, they can't turn her pretty or glamorous or even tough enough to stand up to her tormentors. And they certainly can't shuttle her back in time, back to Georgia, where she used to live happily with her grandmother. All the A's in the world can't change her grim reality. Except maybe they can.

When Patrice's principal urges her to apply for a scholarship to a prestigious African-American boarding school in Mississippi, Patrice feels a twinge of hope. She knows she couldn't really go. If she took off, who would watch her young cousins, not to mention do their laundry, cook their food, and help them with their homework while their mom does double shifts to make rent? Certainly not Patrice's 18-year-old sister, who's too busy working or hunting down Mr. Right to pay an ounce of attention to what's going on with Patrice. Still, Patrice has to try.

Unexpected help comes in the form of her suave classmate, Monty Freeman. Although he seems eager to help Patrice, she's not really sure if she can trust him. School gossip pegs him for a drug dealer. Besides, the more she relies on him, the more of a problem he's becoming - she's not sure she can leave Monty any more than she can leave her cousins and Aunt Mae. And then there's the little problem of completing the application. Exactly when is she going to have time to do that?

Standing Against the Wind by Traci L. Jones is a get-up-and-cheer kind of novel, one that makes you root hard for the plucky heroine who, you just know, is going to triumph over all her troubles. Although it takes a hard, unsentimental look at inner-city life, the story gathers warmth and heart from its strong, engaging characters. Hopeful and touching, Standing Against the Wind had me laughing, crying, and running to Amazon to purchase a copy for myself. Would it be redundant to say I loved it? Probably. But still ... I loved it.

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), sexual innuendo/content, and mature themes

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Funny Middle Grade Novel Proves a Good Friend's Worth It. Every Time.

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What do you do when your BFF comes home after spending the summer at a swanky Florida beach house - where she completely ignored your emails and texts, by the way - transformed into someone you hardly recognize and bragging about her gorgeous new boyfriend? What do you do when her exciting love life gets her all kinds of attention from the popular girls, leaving you feeling totally cast out? If you're a spunky 12-year-old like Tori Barnes, you fight back.

Tori's pretty sure Sienna's lying about Antonio, the boy she says she met while on vacation, but no matter how she tries, she can't get Sienna to 'fess up. Tired of listening to her friend go on and on about how great her guy is, Tori decides to make up a boyfriend of her own. Not only is Sebastian better looking than Antonio, but he's more debonair, more thoughtful, more romantic (Hey, if you're going to go to all the trouble of making up a boyfriend, you might as well go for broke, right?). It's not easy for Tori to keep up the charade, especially when her friends expect her to bring the fabulous Sebastian to the next school dance. Sienna doesn't seem to be freaking out about the dance - Could her amazing boyfriend be for real? Has Sienna made a huge mistake? What will happen when everyone finds out she's been lying? Will she have any friends left?

My Fake Boyfriend Is Better Than Yours by Kristina Springer is a light, funny book that brings back all the drama and angst of junior high. In a good way. Tori's a snarky, authentic narrator, who's as real as she is lovable. Her story could be anyone's, which is why it's so easy to identify with her. Maybe the novel doesn't have a lot of depth, but it's a quick, enjoyable read about the (sometimes ridiculous) lengths we'll go to in order to keep a friend. Although I wouldn't go back to seventh grade if you paid me, I enjoyed revisiting those awkward, in-between years through the eyes of spirited Tori Barnes, who proves that a good friend is worth it. Every time.

(Readalikes: I'm sure there are a million similar stories out there, but I can't think of one. Help?)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of My Fake Boyfriend Is Better Than Yours from the generous folks at Farrar Straus and Giroux (a division of McMillan). Thank you!

Monday, October 17, 2011

'Cause Ya Gotta Have Faith; Ya Gotta Have Faith; Ya Gotta Have Faith-a-Faith-a-Faith

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The House of Enlightenment stands at the center of life in the small, Southern town of West River. It's a conservative, evangelical church that preaches traditional family values, decrying sin in ways that are sometimes very ... colorful. Like the annual Hell House production. The religious carnival vividly dramatizes the dangers of indulging in licentious behavior, like drunk driving, sleeping around, and homosexuality. Members of the church aren't exactly zealots, but they're certainly dedicated.

Perennial good girl Lacy Ann Byer counts herself among the believers. The 16-year-old obeys her parents, refrains from swearing, even wears a purity ring to announce her commitment to wait for sex until marriage. Her one vainglorious ambition? To play Abortion Girl in this year's Hell House performance. The role's usually given to a high school senior, but Lacy thinks she has a shot at it even though she's only a junior. She can't tell anyone she's trying out - What would people think? - so she's keeping her secret longing to herself. At least until she knows if she got the part.

Lacy's intense focus on Hell House shatters when she spots a handsome newcomer in town. She's not supposed to lust after guys, even really hot ones like Ty Davis, but his attention is making her hormones spin out of control. Her parents don't approve, especially since Ty seems less than committed to the House of Enlightenment. When Ty's skepticism starts making Lacy question her own faith, everyone's concerned. Especially Lacy. As she begins to see her church's doctrines in a less forgiving light, Lacy must decide for herself what she believes. And, like all major decisions, this one's more than a little complicated.

Small Town Sinners, a new YA novel by Melissa Walker, is an honest, but sensitive look at faith - how it's gained, how it's lost, how it's influenced by those around us. Every good girl will identify with Lacy's plight, empathizing with her desire to be both discerning and accepting. While I found the book's message a little too obvious (it's kind of preachy in a backwards sort of way), I also thought it was compelling and, ultimately, hopeful. Small Town Sinners didn't shake my faith in my own conservative Christian religion, but it definitely offered some food for thought. And I'm always up for that.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a lot of Angela Morrison's YA trilogy [Taken By Storm, Unbroken Connection, Cayman Summer] about a Mormon girl who questions her faith when she falls for a non-Mormon boy and a little of Back When You Were Easier to Love by Emily Wing Smith)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), sexual innuendo and mature subject matter

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find

Friday, October 14, 2011

Back From the Lake, Time to ... Hop?

After spending a few days at Lake Powell floating around on a houseboat, my world's still rocking a bit. The swaying motion has mostly subsided, but everything else is a-tilt - the house is a mess, I'm way behind on reviews, I've got piles of laundry to tackle, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (as Yul Brenner would say). So, instead of doing this:

I'm going to spend my Friday ignoring my miles long to-do list in favor of something much more fun: the Book Blogger Hop. Care to join me? Just click on over to Crazy For Books to get all the details.

In honor of Halloween, this week's question is: What's your favorite spooky book (mystery/suspense, thriller, ghost story, etc.)?

- I'm a little stumped on this one. I used to read a lot more horror than I do now, so I'm just going to go ahead and say anything by Stephen King. A cop-out, I know, but that's all I can think of. How about some suggestions? What's the spookiest book you've ever read?

If you're stopping by via the Hop, welcome! I'm so glad you found me. Feel free to take a look around BBB, leave me a comment or two or ten, and please be sure to leave a link to your blog so I can return the favor. If you're one of my faithful readers - thanks for sticking with me. You don't know how much your loyalty means. Have a great weekend, everybody!

Dystopian Copycat Too Generic For My Taste

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows I love me some YA dystopian. I can't get enough of it. Except, the thing is, I'm starting to get impatient with the same ole, same ole. At this point, with doomsday fiction flooding the market, I'm craving originality. Or at least some good storytelling. And maybe some complex characters, surprising plot twists, snappy dialogue? Is that too much to ask? Maybe.

Case in point: Eve by Anna Carey. The novel, the first in a new dystopian trilogy, begins in a cloistered society of young women. At the School, the girls are kept behind guarded walls, safe from the soldiers and scavengers who live in the wasted world beyond. Through education, they're being groomed to become society's next doctors, scientists, and saviors. At least that's what they've been told. When 17-year-old Eve discovers what really happens to the School's graduates, she's horrified. It's only a matter of hours before she, herself, will be advanced into the City.

Refusing to accept the awful fate that's befallen her classmates, Eve sets out on a perilous journey. Traveling across the ruins of what was once Northern California, she's determined to reach the ocean, where a safe haven is said to exist. But the king of New America's taken a strange interest in young Eve and he's not about to let her roam free. With royal guards chasing after her, she's reluctant to trust anyone who might be punished for helping her, but when Eve meets Caleb, she takes the risk. With both of their lives on the line, they make for what was once San Francisco. Getting there will not be easy, it may not even be possible. Especially when the all-powerful king has chosen Eve for his own.

Plot sound familiar? I've read it 100 times (give or take). Carey does break the dystopian pattern a little - Eve discovers her society's big secret in the first two chapters, then spends the rest of the book running. Usually it takes the heroine a little longer to "get it." The problem with this divergence is that it actually rushes the plot, not giving the reader enough time to get acclimated to the story's dystopian world or to get to know Eve and her friends well enough to care about them. The reader's thrust right into the action, which isn't a bad thing except when it comes at the expense of character development. In Eve, it certainly does. This, coupled with flat characters, melodramatic dialogue, predictable plot twists, and an underdeveloped setting, made the novel another generic dystopian copycat.

I wanted to like Eve, I really did, but I just didn't. Maybe the story will improve over the next two books. Maybe it won't. It doesn't matter because I won't be sticking with this one long enough to find out.

(Readalikes: Eve's got similar themes as The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood; Prized by Caragh M. O'Brien; Delirium by Lauren Oliver; etc.)

Grade: C-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs), violence, and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Eve from the generous folks at HarperTeen. Thank you!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Raw, Hard-Hitting Issue Novel Impactful Without Being Preachy

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When a therapist suggests that 16-year-old Amy Richards start a journal to help her deal with things, she scoffs at the idea. She's not really the "Dear Diary" type. When she starts writing her entries as letters to her best friend, though, she can't stop. Amy will never send the notes - heaven doesn't have a mailbox - but writing them helps her to remember Julia. They help her cope, help her grieve, help her move on. Sort of. The thing is, Amy knows she's responsible for Julia's death and that's something she won't get over. Ever.

Amy's trying to atone for her sin. She spent the summer in rehab, learning to face life without alcohol. She's keeping her therapy appointments, surviving school, and trying not to hate her parents. But life still hurts. Especially when, through purging her thoughts on paper, Amy comes to realize that her memories of Julia may not be as accurate as she thought they were. Their relationship may not have been as perfect as it seems. And Amy's assumptions about herself may not be correct either. Confronting the truth about her past makes things sharper, clearer, more painful. Will it set her free like the Bible promises? Or will her new-found knowledge destroy Amy once and for all?

Love You Hate You Miss You by Elizabeth Scott is one of those hard-hitting issue novels that's as evocative as it is disturbing. Amy tells it like it is in a raw, authentic voice that will speak loud and clear to teenagers. The book packs a powerful message, without sounding too preachy. I didn't love Love You Hate You Miss You, but I think it's an important story and one that will resonate with anyone who's had to live with the soul-crushing guilt and regret that come from letting someone down. And, really, isn't that all of us?

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little of Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language (1 F-bomb, plus other, milder invectives), sexual innuendo, and depictions of underrage drinking and illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Love You Hate You Miss You from the generous folks at HarperTeen. Thank you!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Winter's Bone As Cold and Bleak As a Missouri Winter

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

I've read some disheartening novels in my time, but I'm not sure I've ever encountered one as depressing as Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell. From its icy blue cover to its frigid setting to its crusty characters, the book's as cold and bleak as a Missouri winter. Which is, I guess, the point. But still - talk about depressing.

The story revolves around Ree Dolly, a 16-year-old girl living in the hills of the Missouri Ozarks in a community full of her ne'er-d0-well relatives ("...dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law" [8]). She plans to escape her poverty-stricken life the second she's old enough to join the Army, but for now, she's stuck taking care of her two young brothers and her mother, whose mind took a hike years ago. It's a hard, squalid existence, one Ree stoically endures while dreaming of something better.

All Ree's hopes are dashed one glacial winter morning when Johnny Law comes nosing around, asking about her father. A notorious crank chef, Jessup Dolly has skipped town, presumably to avoid his upcoming court date. He's posted the Dolly's home and timber acres as his bail bond; if Jessup doesn't appear in front of the judge, Ree and her family will lose the few assets they have. Knowing she can't keep her family together without a roof over their heads, Ree vows to drag her father home, no matter what it takes. It's a dangerous task, involving confrontations with the vilest Dollys the Ozarks have ever produced. With little choice, the determined teen sets out across the frozen hills on a life-or-death quest to save the only things in her world that are worth redeeming - her still-innocent brothers. And, maybe, herself.

As hardened as Ree is, she's an admirable character, one who's easy to root for if difficult to like. She is, in fact, the only (semi-) bright spot in the brutal, arctic landscape of Winter's Bone. Woodrell's raw, unsympathetic look at families steeped in the Ozark drug culture is both vivid and compelling, just not particularly uplifting. The novel's a quick read, to be sure, but not an easy one at all. If it had been one page longer, or if I hadn't been too sick to get out of bed when I read it, I wouldn't have finished Winter's Bone. It's well-written, just not my cup of tea. Like at all.

(Readalikes: Although the settings are vastly different, Winter's Bone reminds me of The Road by Cormac McCarthy)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language, violence, sexual content and portrayals of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love: I bought Winter's Bone from Borders (*sniff*) with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Caution: Don't Blink, You Might Miss Something

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Living on the streets of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, has taught 16-year-old Brent Conboy (aka "Blink") a thing or two. Like how to score a free breakfast. Picking uneaten morsels off room service trays left outside hotel room doors is lucrative enough to take the risk of getting caught. One day, though, he bites off more than he can chew. A lot more. After witnessing what turns out to be the kidnapping of an important CEO, Blink makes a crucial mistake: he gets involved.

Blink's not sure what exactly he saw outside of the CEO's hotel room, but it didn't look to him like Jack Niven was taken by force. The businessman appeared to be calm, unharmed. That's all Blink means to tell Jack's daughter when she calls on the Blackberry her father left behind - he doesn't want to start talking to her, doesn't want to be confiding in her, and, most of all, doesn't want to trust her. Except he does. As much as Blink needs to walk away, he has to help Alyson Niven find her father and not just because he feels bad for her, but because she'll pay him to do it.

Things get even more complicated when Blink meets Kitty "Caution" Pettigrew, a snarky 16-year-old on the run from her drug dealer boyfriend. Kitty's got all the street smarts Blink lacks and she's willing to help him find Niven. For a price. Without her, he may not be able to pull the whole thing off. But can he trust yet another girl he hardly knows? Or will his plan backfire, landing Blink in jail or worse - six feet under?

Blink & Caution, a new YA novel by prolific children's writer Tim Wynne-Jones, is one of those can't-put-it-down, edge-of-your-seat thrill rides that leaves you breathless with all its heart-stopping twists and turns. And yet, it's not the adrenaline rush that makes the book so compelling. It's the intertwining stories of Blink and Caution, two wounded souls who find redemption in each other. Although the mystery itself gets predictable, I enjoyed Blink & Caution's quick pace, the characters, and the storytelling (although the voice in Blink's sections takes a little getting used to). I haven't read anything else by Wynne-Jones, but that's about to change.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a little bit of The Client by John Grisham)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for strong language, violence, and some sexual innuendo/content

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of Blink & Caution from the generous folks at Candlewick Press. Thank you!

Friday, October 07, 2011

Premise? Intriguing. Execution? Not So Much.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for From Bad to Cursed, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, Bad Girls Don't Die. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Katie Alender's first book, Bad Girls Don't Die, creeped me out. I didn't expect it to give me nightmares, but it did. Old-fashioned ghost stories don't appear that often in the vampire/werewolf/angel/demon/fairy/shape shifter-saturated world of YA fiction, so this one made me happy. News about a sequel made me even happier. Another sneaky, subtle scare fest? Yes, please!

So, did it work? Did it leave me trembling in my bed with the covers pulled over my head? Wait and see, my friends, wait and see ...

From Bad to Cursed begins about a year after Kasey Warren's possession by an evil ghost tears her family's lives to shreds. Now, with Kasey safely ensconced in an institution, the Warrens are eager to put the whole haunted house thing behind them. They've moved into Silver Sage Acres, a modern subdivision without enough personality to attract evil spirits. It feels safe, normal. Even 16-year-old Lexi Warren is breathing easy, looking forward to a new school year with the perfect boyfriend, the perfect best friend, even not-so-perfect, but better-than-average parents. Then she gets a shock: Kasey's back. Although the 14-year-old seems haunt-free, Lexi's wary. And disappointed. What if her perfect year turns out to be anything but?

Most kids go out of their way to avoid Kasey, so Lexi's thrilled when her sister starts making friends. She even becomes a founding member of the Sunshine Club, membership in which seems to be making her prettier, more outgoing, even popular. Lexi feels a tinge of jealousy as she watches Kasey and her dorky friends go from awkward to A-list in no time at all. Then she discovers Kasey's dirty little secret: the Sunshine girls have pledged their allegiance to a malovelent spirit named Aralt. Determined to protect her family from another paranormal assault, Lexi vows to take down the Sunshine Club, breaking Aralt's connection to the girls forever. But infiltrating the club won't be as simple as Lexi thinks it will be, especially not when she gets a taste of what Aralt can do for his faithful followers. Maybe a little deal with the devil's not such a bad thing after all ...

As much as I like the premise behind From Bad to Cursed, the execution didn't impress me. The story got too predictable, the characters felt stale, and whatever originality existed in the idea of the book didn't make it into the actual plot. I still booked through the novel in less than a day, so it was entertaining enough to keep my interest, just not enough to make me scream and shout and beg the author for another sequel. Not that I won't read the next book, because I totally will, but you get the point - this one was just okay for me.

(Readalikes: Bad Girls Don't Die by Katie Alender)

Grade: C

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for intense situations

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of From Bad to Cursed from the generous folks at Disney/Hyperion. Thanks!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Start Your Engines: NASCAR Murder Mystery Quite the Ride

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

(Note: Although this review will not contain spoilers for Flash and Bones, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from earlier Temperance Brennan mysteries. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)

Temperance Brennan knows little about NASCAR, but she's lived in Charlotte, NC, long enough to know what Race Week will bring - traffic and lots of it. While 200,000 fans cram themselves into the stands at Charlotte Motor Speedway, she's planning to hide out in her apartment, sipping Diet Coke and petting her cat. But, alas, fate has different plans for the intrepid forensic anthropologist.

When a body is discovered in a landfill near the speedway, Tempe's called in to help identify the remains. With little to go on, she's considering several possibilities - the corpse could be that of a missing barhopper or a racing fan from Atlanta who hasn't been answering his phone or really, just about anyone. When a NASCAR crew member shows up in Tempe's office with a story about his missing sister, yet another possibility opens up. Could the body belong to 17-year-old Cindi Gamble, who disappeared with her 24-year-old boyfriend in 1998? If so, who killed her? And why is her brother so convinced the FBI covered up their findings about the case? Is Wayne Gamble completely delusional or is there something to his story?

The more Tempe investigates the teenager's disappearance, the more puzzling the mystery becomes. With remains vanishing, police records being confiscated, and plenty of strange to go around, the idea of a government cover-up doesn't seem so far-fetched. The only question is why would the Feds care about a missing young nobody from Kannapolis?

As pressure to solve the case builds, Tempe's personal life is heating up as well. Not only has she somehow become her ex-husband's brainless fiance's most trusted confidant, but a handsome new associate is threatening to push the absent Andrew Ryan right out of her mind. And heart. A deluge of problems to go with the damp weather - just what Tempe needs. So much for hanging with her cat.

I've loved the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs since the first book (Deja Dead). Although some of the novels have been more appealing to me than others, I've found them to be consistently well-written and entertaining. Much of it has to do with Tempe herself. Her voice, with its unique blend of smart, compassionate and snarky, gets me every time.

As for Flash and Bones, I enjoyed the NASCAR setting (You should have seen the gleam in my husband's eye every time I asked him something like, "Did you know stock car racing started because of bootlegging during Prohibition?" or "Wow, that Jacques Villeneuve is kind of a legend, huh?"), even if that's not exactly my thing. Reichs gives enough facts and background to make the sport interesting without going overboard - the same tactic she uses to keep the reader's interest while explaining all the pertinent details of forensic science. While I liked the setting and all the subplots in Flash and Bones, I was a little disappointed in the mystery. I solved the case (almost) as soon as I "met" the killer, then spent the rest of the story waiting for Tempe to catch up. Not that it wasn't an enjoyable wait, but I would have preferred a little more mystery in this mystery. Still and all, I raced (pun intended) through the book and pouted *a little* over the fact that I have to wait a whole year for the next installment. Despite its flaws, this is still one of my favorite series.

(Readalikes: Other books in the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, violence, and sexual innuendo

To the FTC, with love: I bought Flash and Bones from Amazon with a portion of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Just Go Read The Book. You Can Thank Me Later.

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

"Of course, that was then and this was the end of the world" (265).

So, here's the thing: The best zombie apocalypse book I've read to date isn't even really about zombies. I mean, it is. They're definitely there in all their blank-eyed, foot-dragging, gut-slurping glory. It's just that there's so much more to Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick that you kind of forget about the zombies. How to explain this epic novel, the first in what promises to be a most excellent trilogy? Well, it's like dumping all your favorite dystopian stories into a blender, selecting the finest mix-ins (vivid prose, intriguing characters, heartpounding suspense, etc.), hitting puree, and pouring out the perfect blend of dystopian goodness. Yep, that's Ashes.

The story begins in Michigan's Waucamaw Wilderness, where 17-year-old Alex Adair is hiking in the woods. She's toting camping gear, her father's Glock, and a black case that holds all that remains of her parents. The tent and sleeping bag are necessities for the days-long hike to Lake Superior, where she plans to spread the ashes. And the pistol? Well, that's just in case. Just in case she finally finds the guts to blow the cancerous, inoperable tumor out of her head once and for all.

Before Alex has time to make it anywhere near the lake, it happens. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) lasers the Earth. A flock of birds drops out of the sky, dead. A terrified doe bolts off the edge of a cliff. The kindly, old hiker Alex had just been talking to collapses and doesn't get up. Alex is alive, but ... changed. The haze in her head, a constant reminder of the cancer inside her, is gone, replaced by a weird sense she doesn't understand and can't explain. She doesn't have time to worry about it, either, because the world's gone crazy in the most inexplicable way possible and now she's fighting for her life on a remote mountain in the middle of nowhere. To make matters worse, she's now got 9-year-old Ellie to take care of. And precious few supplies. When they meet up with Tom Eden, a 20-year-old soldier on leave from an assignment in Afghanistan, the makeshift family has to find someplace to hide. The forest is crawling with wolves, coyotes, and something much more sinister. Something that looks human, but isn't. Not by a long shot.

While the trio hides out in the woods, they try to make sense of what's happening in the outside world. Widespread damage, they know that. Millions of deaths, they know that, too. Then there are the teenagers, who didn't die, not exactly, but changed into rabid zombies. Why Alex and Tom were spared they don't know. The hunt for answers takes them out of the mountains, into what was once civilized society. Now, it's more like a war zone. All the rules of safe, normal life have flown out the window. Everything has changed.

Desperate for food, shelter and medical help, Alex heads for the nearest settlement of survivors. No matter how crazy the world's gone, it's human nature to take in the helpless. No matter what she's seen, she has faith in people's innate goodness. No matter what, she has to get help. The heavily-guarded village of Rule offers that, but not without some strings attached. Alex will do anything to keep Ellie and Tom alive - even if it means living by strict, unfathomable laws. But the longer she stays in the town, the more unsettled she grows. Something's very wrong in Rule. Only one question remains: Will she survive longer in Rule or outside of it?

Grrr. My measly summary doesn't even come close to describing Ashes with any kind of accuracy. The book's hard to classify since it's part surival story, part sci fi adventure, part horror story, part psychological thriller, and 100% post-apocalyptic, dystopian awesomeness. Mostly, though, it's the story of a tough, courageous girl finding her will to survive in a world devoid of hope. Tense, taut, riveting, engrossing, unputdownable ... Oh, forget it, I give up - just go read the book.

You can thank me later.

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language (a couple of F-bombs, plus milder invectives), violence and gore

To the FTC, with love: I bought Ashes from Amazon with some of the millions I make from my lucrative career as a book blogger. Ha ha.

Mormon Mentions: Ilsa J. Bick

If you're new to BBB, you may be wondering what in the world a "Mormon Mention" is. You may even be wondering what the heck a Mormon is. Well, a Mormon is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Like me. As such, I'm naturally concerned with how my church is portrayed in the media. Since this blog is all about the written word, every time I see a reference to the church in a book written by someone who is not LDS, I post it. Why? That depends. Sometimes it's just to snicker along with the author at my crazy Mormon culture, other times it's to correct a misconception or simply to offer my view as an "insider." I always welcome your thoughts, opinions, comments and questions on these posts and if you have no interest in them, feel free to skip right over them. I won't be offended. Promise.

With that disclaimer, here we go:

In Ashes, Ilsa J. Bick's new YA dystopian novel (see gushing review above), the heroine finds her way to a walled village called Rule. In trying to figure out how the town works, Alex has this conversation with Kincaid, one of Rule's residents:

"Why is it so important that I see this Council and the Reverend? I mean, they can't decide where everyone goes. There are too many people."

"Five hundred, give or take, yeah. And no, they don't eyeball everyone. Wardens - men who've been given the keys - do that."

"Keys? You mean, like, to unlock doors?"

"Not physical ones, no. It's, ah, a biblical reference. Matthew: And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Same concept as the Mormon priesthood, although we're not Mormons. What it boils down to is that the Council awards certain men the authority to make decisions in certain areas: the farms, the armory, supplies, sanitation, for example ..." (319).

Twenty-some pages later, Alex asks Kincaid, "What is this place? Are you a cult or, you know, one of those really religious ..." She groped for the right word. "You said you're not Mormons or something, but like the Amish? Some kind of weird sect? Things seem so decided."

[Paragraph omitted]

Kincaid studied her for a long few seconds. "Considering some of my best friends are Amish, I might take offense. They're not weird, or a cult. They're gentle, good people."

"You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do" (346).

Let's go ahead and deal with the second passage first ... I realize Bick's not suggesting the LDS Church is a cult, but it's such a prevalent myth that we might as well get this out of the way once and for all: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (members of which are commonly known as Mormons) is not a cult. It's a church, which - as its name indicates - is centered around Jesus Christ and His teachings. Yes, members of the mainstream church did practice polygamy in the 1800s. This no longer occurs. Hasn't for over 100 years. It is against the laws of the country and the LDS Church.

Disagreements among early church members over various doctrines led to the formation of off-shoots like the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. These sects are not affiliated with the LDS Church. They differ in theology, practices, leadership, everything. While I have no personal experience with the FLDS Church (run by famed polygamist Warren Jeffs), it is often referred to as a cult and I don't disagree.

Make sense so far? Let's recap: The LDS Church (also commonly known as the Mormon Church) is not a cult. Not. A. Cult. Got it? Good. Let's move on.

The comparison Bick makes between the "Mormon priesthood" and Rule's government is interesting. In some ways, it's apt; in other ways, not so much. Let me explain.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints believe the priesthood is the power of God. The keys are the right to use this authority in certain ways. Jesus Christ has always held all the keys of the priesthood. When He called the Twelve Apostles, He gave them the priesthood. Before He was crucified, He gave the keys of the priesthood to Peter, James and John (see Matthew 17:1-9). In the ensuing centuries, this power was lost. We believe it was restored via Joseph Smith and that, today, those same keys are given to all the apostles and the prophet/president of our church. Although all of the apostles hold the keys, only the prophet/president can exercise them in behalf of the church.

Because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is an enormous church, with congregations all over the world, the prophet/president cannot manage it all alone. He delegates certain of the priesthood keys to men who then use it to preside over their specific area of responsibility. They, in turn, appoint other men and women to help with necessary tasks. Thus, every active, adult member of the church has a "calling," or a job within the church. I, for example, teach a weekly Sunday School class for 10-12 year old boys. Someone else plays the piano/organ for meetings, while another person is in charge of scheduling church activities, while yet another organizes meals/housecleaning/yard work, etc. for people who are too ill or elderly to do it for themselves, and so on. Callings are voluntary, unpaid positions which are absolutely vital to the efficient running of church congregations everywhere.

With me so far? Totally lost? Either way, click here for a much, much better explanation of everything I said above and more.

By comparing the Rule's government to the "Mormon priesthood," Bick seems to be saying the priesthood is something reserved for only a few, elect members of the LDS Church. Not so. All worthy (meaning they do their best to honor God's commandments by living honest, chaste, responsible lives) males 12 and over hold the priesthood. Depending on what type of priesthood they hold, bearers are allowed to perform ordinances (i.e. baptisms, marriages, the administration of the Sacrament during Sunday meetings, etc.) as well as give blessings of comfort and healing to those in need. Holding the priesthood is considered a sacred gift and duty. Those bearing this power must make sure they always live worthily of having it.

No priesthood holder is considered more special, more powerful, or more trustworthy than another. All are equal. "Certain men" aren't "awarded" authority - all are offered opportunities to serve within the church community and these opportunities change over time. A man might be a bishop (leader over a local congregation) one year, a children's Sunday School teacher the next, and a pianist the next. Women, by the way, do not hold the priesthood, but do have leadership positions in the church. These also change over time. For example, a woman might teach a class of toddlers one year, preside over a Relief Society (the church's women's group) the next, and direct a choir the next.

In Ashes, a select group of people run the town. They have all the authority, all the power, all the opinions that matter. That's not at all true in the LDS Church. Everyone is equal, whether they hold the priesthood or not.

So, what do you think? Clear as mud?

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